REVIEW: Palm Springs (2020)

Andy Samberg as Nyles (left) and Cristin Milioti as Sarah (right) in Palm Springs. — Photo: Hulu.

Directed by Max Barbakow — Screenplay by Andy Siara.

I am a sucker for time loop movies, and, like most people, I have been a huge fan of these films since I saw Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day as a kid and fell in love with the concept and the film. Although I had seen him in the original Ghostbusters film prior to my first viewing of Groundhog Day, his quintessential time loop classic from 1993 was actually the film that made me a true fan of Bill Murray.

Similarly, Edge of Tomorrow, another fantastic time loop film, boosted Emily Blunt’s career, and, though it may be too early to tell, the Happy Death Day-film series ought to do the same thing for Jessica Rothe. Every time loop film released after 1993 stands on the shoulders of Groundhog Day, and, even though Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day are great films in the subgenre, there are many films that fail to build off of that formula in a satisfying way. Fortunately, Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs is a refreshing and timely (more on this later in the review) time loop film.

Palm Springs, Max Barbakow’s narrative feature film debut, takes place on the wedding day of Abe (played by Tyler Hoechlin) and Tala (played by Camila Mendes). Tala’s sister, Sarah Wilder (played by Cristin Milioti), is the maid of honor but she clearly doesn’t want to be there, as is evident by her complete and utter shock at the fact that she has to give a speech at the wedding, as well as by the giant glass of red wine that she carries around.

For Sarah, Nyles (played by Andy Samberg), who is the boyfriend of one of Tala’s bridesmaids, saves the day, when he swoops in and gives a wedding speech right as people were expecting Sarah to talk about the sanctity of marriage and the power of love, which she was ill-equipped to do. Eventually, Nyles, who seems exceptionally well-prepared for absolutely everything at the wedding, and Sarah hook up, but when they are interrupted and Nyles is seriously injured, Nyles starts to move towards a mysterious cave.

Although Nyles tells her not to, Sarah follows him to make sure that he is okay, but then, moments later, she wakes up and is shocked to find out that it is once again the day of the wedding. For some reason, after having entered into the cave, she has been caught in a time loop, and when she confronts Nyles about this, she learns that he, too, has been stuck in the loop for what, to him, feels like an eternity.

When the film’s cast and crew started filming Palm Springs in early-to-mid 2019, they obviously didn’t know that their film would eventually be experienced first by audiences going through the quarantines and lockdowns of the COVID-19 global pandemic. However, in a way this may have been the perfect time to release a movie in the time loop subgenre, which, by design, forces some of its characters to relive the same day over and over again.

It is very easy to relate to reliving the same day over and over again, when you’ve spent most of the last twelve months at home, which has become both your place of rest and your workplace, and when you haven’t had the opportunity to meet new people or even hang out with friends. There are also other things about the film that made me think about the time in which the film was released, like one character’s feeling of trepidation at the mere thought of escaping the loop (essentially resembling anxiety about returning to society too soon).

“Nobody can stand the idea of being alone.”

Cristin Milioti as Sarah Wilder in Palm Springs.

The film also made me think about how appropriate it is for a time loop film to take place during a wedding, since being at a wedding may remind you of how stuck you may be in you life and/or love life. I think it was a brilliant idea to have the film take place on the wedding day. The fact that the film takes place at a wedding may also hit especially hard at this very moment for single people, since being in quarantine or lockdown forces you to see how couples are living together and coping with one another through social media, while you are stranded both without a partner and without being able to pursue one due to the state of the world. When Andy Samberg’s character begrudgingly says that they we are all ‘alone,’ single people in lockdown will probably find it easy to connect with that notion. Of course, since this is a romantic-comedy time loop film, at least the main characters have each other, but I digress.

When you talk about a film being timely, or that it was released at the right time, you always have to remember that for a film to be truly memorable it has to be easy to connect to even without the accidental benefit of the moment it was released in. For a film to stand the test of time, it has to be not just timely but also a genuinely good movie, which I absolutely do think that Palm Springs is.

It all begins with the twist on the time loop concept. I absolutely love how clever Andy Siara’s story design is. I think it is so smart for a time loop romantic-comedy to follow two characters that are stuck in the same loop, but who have been in the loop for different amounts of time. You have the carefree Nyles-character who is largely passive when it comes to changing his predicament due to having been beaten down by the meaninglessness of having relived the same day over and over again. He has learned to accept the meaninglessness and to get the most out of the loop. But, on the flip side, you have Sarah who is reliving the morning after a day on which she did something she regrets. So, she is haunted by the fact that she can’t right wrongs in a time loop, which makes her much more of an active character.

Siara’s script also added in the twist of having J. K. Simmons’ character in the film, whose role I won’t spoil. He is so fun in every scene he is in, and he has this really nice conversation with Nyles late in the film that helps to communicate what Nyles needs. I thought Simmons’ character was a really unpredictable character, and I loved that. There are some predictable elements about the film, but I think that the fairly short 90-minute runtime helps to alleviate that potential issue.

In these time loop films, the high concept can sometimes become repetitive, which is to say that often the act of seeing the main character reawaken over and over again can get tiring quickly, but I didn’t have that problem here. The film felt really fresh, likely, in part due to the film being able to jump from perspective to perspective when the time-looped-main characters aren’t in scenes together.

I thought that Siara and Barbakow’s film balanced the comedy and romance elements really well. It’s not a laugh-a-minute comedy — but it is really funny — and it isn’t overly sappy — but it is really sweet. It’s such a charming film, and the central performances definitely do a lot of heavy lifting as well. Andy Samberg is just delightful, but Cristin Milioti will make you wonder why she hasn’t become a household name yet. Samberg and Milioti really do have fantastic comedic and romantic chemistry.

This is a fantastic romantic-comedy time loop film about shared experiences, partnerships, and about choosing the right person to spend eternity with. I think this is the best new time loop film at least since 2014 but possibly longer. I really loved Palm Springs. Sure, its premise is built off of an existing classic film and it isn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy, but those are really my only issues with it. It still feels fresh, it absolutely is charming, and it is surprisingly timely, all of which made this film genuinely special for me.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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